HDD walks you through the highs and lows of the 2009 Blu-ray releases so far...
Well, we're halfway through the year, and the studios face essential questions related to Blu-ray releases.
What, exactly, warrants a high definition version? Do the studios go through the trouble and effort of striking a new high definition master, or do they just fuss with transfers prepared for previous home video releases? And what of special features? Do they kick those up to HD, or just port them over in standard definition? And what, exactly, should the ratio be between new and catalogue titles? What's more, how do you get someone to buy another version of a movie they've already owned numerous times before? Some of these discs retail for $40 a pop! Slapping on a high def version of the theatrical trailer isn't going to persuade anybody.
The answers to these questions define the releases of 2009 (so far). The home video industry is in an uncertain place at the moment, with retail stores on the decline and the studios' home video profits shrinking. With more people equipped with Blu-ray players than ever, this is the year the studios can make the format an essential part of everyday America. But people don't have the kind of disposable income they used to, and retail giants don't discount high definition discs like their standard DVD counterparts, so this is a crucial and complicated time for the format.
Keeping all of that in mind, let's review the year so far, and rate how the studios are doing. In short, it's time to take a look at the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Criterion has only been in the Blu-ray game since the end of last year, but they've already made quite the splash.
Just look at the movies they've released this year, they pretty much speak for themselves - 'The Third Man.' 'Last Year at Marienbad,' 'The Seventh Seal,' 'Wages of Fear,' '400 Blows,' 'In the Realm of the Senses,' 'The Last Metro,' 'El Norte,' 'Man Who Fell to Earth,' 'The Last Emperor,' and in collaboration with Paramount, arguably the single best Blu-ray release of 2009, David Fincher's historical epic 'The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.'
All of these editions are lovingly put together and are either updates of previous catalogue titles or high definition accompaniments to new entries in the collection. Even with the company suffering a couple of devastating blows (losing the high definition rights to 'Ran' and 'Contempt' at the last minute) and not exploiting the format for every new addition to the collection ('The Hit' and 'Magnificent Obsession' were just dying for simultaneous Blu-ray releases), this has been an impeccable first half of the year.
And with some true stunners still on the way (Guillermo del Toro's 'Cronos,' Steven Soderbergh's epic two-part 'Che,' Roman Polanski's 'Repulsion'), Criterion has shown Blu-ray the same love, care, and excellence they afford all of their releases, and in just a few short months have set themselves apart as one of the greatest Blu-ray studios out there.
In 2009 Disney offered a solid high definition release slate that mixed new films, which were generally pretty lousy but looked positively magical in high definition, complete with sparkling transfers, wonderful audio, and a host of features ('Beverly Hills Chihuahua,' 'Bedtime Stories,' 'Confessions of a Shopaholic,' ''High School Musical 3') with older films that offered sturdy transfers and nice features ('Pretty Woman,' an unnecessary but still great 'No Country for Old Men' double-dip). Their releases were shrewd and spare. This wasn't a company that bombarded the market every week. And their decision to package many of the newer films (and some of the catalogue stuff) with a bonus DVD version of the movie, is very appealing, particularly to those large families that only have one Blu-ray player or like to travel with DVDs on hand.
The studio went above and beyond in a couple of categories, however.
True to form, the studio's animated releases were really spectacular. Their deluxe release of the original Walt Disney classic 'Pinnochio' stands as one of the best releases of the year, hands-down. 'Bolt,' while losing some of its luster in the conversion from the 3-D theatrical experience to 2-D home video, still looked like a million bucks and had a nice array of special features. And, obviously, any Pixar release is going to be outstanding. This was definitely the case with the recent 'A Bug's Life' disc (look for two more Pixar favorites - 'Up' and 'Monsters, Inc.' - by the end of the year).
Also, with the two earlier 'Lost' seasons released in high def, they did the impossible, they made the upgrade to high definition -- with an expensive television series box set no less -- seem like an absolute necessity. By combining an alluring series of advertisements, with monetary incentive (a money back voucher if you buy the sets, a heavy discount with online retailers, a combination deal on Amazon - the more sets you buy, the more you save), the studio made something that most of us saw several years ago on crummy standard television (and something that the super-fans already bought on DVD), seem like a worthy addition to our libraries, no matter the expense. (And it turned out the box sets were pretty great.)
We'll see if they can keep this momentum going through the second half of the year - with the aforemtnioned pair of Pixar favorites, some catalogue titles ('Waterboy,' 'Sling Blade'), new films ('Race to Witch Mountain'), television ('Grey's Anatomy,' 'Lost'), and one 800 pound animated gorilla ('Snow White and the Seven Dwarves') - it looks very possible. It'd be nice to see them exploit their rich Miramax catalogue ('Jackie Brown,' 'The Talented Mr. Ripley' etc.) and put out more animated stuff. Their overall grade is deducted a full half-a-letter for putting out a wonderful, stuffed-to-the-gills edition of 'Lilo & Stitch' on standard definition, but failing to give it a deluxe Blu-ray counterpart. Shameful.
This studio came to the table with a line-up as horrible as Criterion's line-up was great, punctuated by a pair of catalogue releases (a workmanlike 'Arrival' and the debatable 'Terminator 2' reissue). When 'Punisher: War Zone' is unquestionably one of the studio's highpoints, you know something is wrong. Listing the movies would just add insult to injury (oh okay, how about a few - 'My Best Friend's Girl,' 'Transporter 3,' 'Midnight Meat Train,' and 'Bangkok Dangerous').
Truth be told, I haven't seen many of their releases this year. I made it through about fifteen minutes of 'Repo' before getting too confused and having to shut it off. Still, despite the movies themselves, most of the HDD staff have given Lionsgate props for their great audio and video - both are usually very strong. For those who want to show off their superior home theater set-ups with inferior movies, this is the way to go.
Still, this is a studio with a fairly rich catalogue (they could at least put out stuff like 'Open Water' and 'Cabin Fever,' movies that are only a few years old), but instead they stick to their theatrical releases, which offer only minor pleasures (why wasn't 'My Bloody Valentine 3-D' released in an unrated cut when all the press leading up to the film's theatrical releases suggested there was much left on the cutting room floor?)
This is just bad, bordering on awful. Here's hoping there will be a few more things to look forward to in the coming months.
As of this writing, Magnolia has only released a handful of movies on Blu-ray in 2009. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. Overall, Magnolia's slate (mostly modestly budgeted independent and genre pictures) is fairly strong, although I would like to know what makes them choose which movie to release on high definition and which to hold back on (I'd love to know why the fantastic Spanish thriller 'Timecrimes' didn't get the much deserved upgrade).
But really, when talking about Magnolia this year we've got to talk about one release specifically - 'Let the Right One In.' This Swedish vampire flick was one of last year's critical darlings (it won the Audience Award at the hoity toity Tribeca Film Festival for crying out loud) and when it was released on Blu-ray, in a lovingly put together special edition package, the world rejoiced. Then, it turned out, that Magnolia had gone with a different, and much less accurate subtitle translation. They took a little while, then admitted their mistake, but didn't offer any kind of trade-in policy and said that when ordering the title on Amazon, there would be no way of knowing which one you would get - the corrected one, or the one with the iffy subtitles.
This bungle showed a huge amount of disrespect to the movie and, more than that, the high definition fans who would now have to purchase the movie twice on Blu-ray, without any insurance.
If you only release a handful of movies during the year, some of them quite good ('Splinter' is a nifty little creature feature), but treat your biggest and most important release like this, well, it doesn't bode well for your studio overall.
Since MGM is now a production house (distributed theatrically by Sony) instead of a full fledged movie studio (with Fox handling all of its home video releases now), it makes it harder to judge who is making the decisions and who to applaud (or criticize) as a result. Still, I'd have to say that overall, I have been extremely impressed with this year's output from MGM (or Fox).
The only problem with this Fox-MGM home video hybrid is that Fox has been applying its usual tricks to MGM classics. Namely, releasing Blu-ray versions that are little more than their DVD special edition counterparts, with lackluster video and sound, and slapping a $35 list price on them. It's an unsightly process, and one dumped on truly spectacular films (like 'Ronin' and 'Silence of the Lambs'). Fox needs to understand this is a NEW format, with HUGE possibilities. It shouldn't just be a gimmick to try to hustle people out of money, and these prices certainly shouldn't be set at the near Laserdisc level costs of ten and twenty years ago!
(MGM has also inherited Fox's annoying tendency to have trailers automatically run before the movie - for both MGM and Fox films.)
To many, MGM = James Bond, and this year they really delivered, with tricked-out high definition editions of classics (I use the term loosely) 'Moonraker,' 'Goldfinger,' 'License to Kill,' ''Man with the Golden Gun,' 'Never Say Never Again,' and 'World is Not Enough.' In addition, they released the newest Bond feature 'Quantum of Solace,' which looked and sounded like a million bucks but definitely skimped on the extras. Watching the 'Quantum' Blu-ray you could practically envision the forthcoming "special edition" double dip, and that's a lousy feeling to have as a customer.
The combined catalogues of MGM and Fox are mighty, and here's hoping they'll actually put the time and effort into first rate high definition presentations, instead of just shameless cash grabs. (more on Fox below)
After a troubled history (for a brief period in 2007 the once "purple" Paramount was only committed to HD DVD discs), they committed to Blu-ray in 2009 to an absurd degree. Really, they were firing on all cylinders. Unlike the aforementioned Fox/MGM, they really committed to their catalogue titles on Blu-ray, providing vastly superior picture and sound that made the extra money actually seem worth the upgrade (movies like 'Primal Fear' and 'Ferris Bueller's Day Off').
They were also committed to quality TV, with the first two seasons of Showtime's 'Dexter' getting our 'Highly Recommended' mark. They also released a season of 'South Park,' the magnificent 'Star Trek: The Original Series - Season 1' (which garnered another 'Highly Recommended' stamp of approval from us) and 'CSI.'
They were also responsible for the two single greatest Blu-ray releases of the year - David Fincher's 'Zodiac' (released way back in January and still a huge highlight) and 'The Curious Case of Benjamin Button' (in conjunction with Criterion). Two films by the same director, both digitally filmed (which made for absolutely breathtaking video) that really put the new format through its paces. Just wonderful.
But to most, the success or failure of Paramount so far this year will hinge on their commitment to two franchises - 'Star Trek' and 'Friday the 13th'. While I wasn't particularly impressed with the 'Star Trek' box set, which compiled all of the original Shatner films, our reviewers seemed to deem them acceptable for the most part, with audio and video being the standouts. (Would it have killed them to release each movie individually? Probably.) Still, their continued commitment to the series is commendable, and we look forward to having the 'Next Generation' movies, presumably about the time this summer's big screen reboot arrives on home video.
As for the 'Friday the 13th' releases (they released the first three films in high definition this year), well, our resident 'Friday' scholar deemed them acceptable entries for a horror nut's library, and I felt they were pretty good for what they were - nice new versions of the movies, with improved picture and sound and a meaty collection of extras. The great thing about the 'Friday' releases was that you could normally find them for under $20 online, so if you weren't blown away it wasn't a huge commitment (the 'Star Trek' boxset, meanwhile, would set you back close to $100).
So Paramount really pushed things forward on the Blu-ray front these past few months and here's hoping they continue their commitment to catalogue excellence and new release innovation as the year continues (I'm sure I speak for everyone when I say that I can't wait for the new 'Star Trek' movie to hit high def). Just one question - where's the long promised Blu-ray release of 'Stardust?' It's a guilty pleasure that could be a next generation Blu-ray dazzler.
Sony started the year with nothing but promise: They began 2009 with the release of the wonderful 2-disc edition of David Gordon Green's masterful dope comedy 'Pineapple Express.' It was everything that a new release Blu-ray should be - great transfer, a wealth of extras, wonderful sound. There was also promise of a different sort - with the release of a 'Ghostbusters' videogame, Sony would be releasing a great new Blu-ray disc of the classic film to coincide with that videogame.
And then the 'Ghostbusters' disc finally came out. And it was a huge letdown, complete with a questionable transfer and only a handful of new special features. All in all, it barely offered a bump up from the previous standard DVD.
Between 'Pineapple' and 'Ghostbusters,' Sony released a batch of movies (both new releases and catalogue favorites) that were mostly strong in the AV departments and occasionally had strong extras. (You'd expect nothing less from the company behind the format, right?)
Special props should be given to them for releasing a slew of independent features, most notably the great disc for 'Synecdoche, New York,' and giving them the care and attention they really deserved. These would be notable discs if only for the films, but Sony really went above and beyond.
Overall, this has been a strong half of the year, marred only by the occasional new disc that's wrought with technical issues ('Underworld 3') and their bizarre decision making abilities for what catalogue titles to upgrade. Also - may I suggest, in the snowball's chance in hell category, a deluxe, multi-disc reissue of Richard Kelly's 'Southland Tales,' complete with the three hour long Cannes cut that restored may missing segments, including much of Kevin Smith and Janeane Garafolo's performances?
20th Century Fox
Yep, we're back for more. Can we first please talk about the annoying commercial that runs everytime you put in a Fox Blu-ray? It's a commercial touting the awe-inspiring incredibleness of Blu-ray, except that, you know, we already know this, because we put down the money to buy a Blu-ray player and even more money when we went out and bought the disc. Talk about preaching to the converted! This is just such a loud, annoying, unnecessary introduction to every disc. Ugh.
Fox is a hard company to give a grade to. As a movie studio making new movies, they're absolutely abysmal, so even if 'Max Payne' looks and sounds amazing on Blu-ray (which it did), it's such a crappy movie that you would never want to recommend it to anyone. The smaller Fox Searchlight imprint does have a much better track record, and the this year the studio released great discs for 'The Wrestler,' 'Slumdog Millionaire,' and 'Little Miss Sunshine.' At the same time, they are really uneven with what catalogue titles they wish to show actual care and support. For example, 'South Pacific' is an amazing title (look at those colors!) but 'Sideways,' just a few years old, is totally lackluster - and they're both selling for the same exorbitant price. You could go through the entire release list this year and you could almost alternate 'wonderful' and 'terrible' when describing the high def package for each disc.
Sometimes this tug of war was happening within the same disc. 'The French Connection's Blu-ray caused quite a stir with different high profile movie bloggers claiming it to be an exemplary transfer, while others, including our own Josh Zyber, saying it was one of the worst treatments of a classic film that they had ever seen it. (Director William Friedkin claimed personal responsibility, for good or bad, for vastly altered color done without the participation of the film's cinematographer(!) that differed greatly from the film's initial release)
It's this unevenness that makes grading the studio on a whole so hard. Here's hoping they can get their act together from here on out and only provide excellent quality content, instead of waffling on so many titles. (Editor's Note - Just as importantly, the studio really needs to alter its stance on sending out review copies. At the moment they will not send a title out for review until after it has hit store shelves, meaning no Blu-ray reviews are possible before or by a film's release date. This is a terribly policy if the studio wishes to build any advanced word of mouth.)
Universal started the year off with a bang by releasing the 'Bourne Trilogy' in a kick-ass deluxe three-disc package that remains one of the year's best box sets. From then on, Universal has been almost unparalleled in terms of their shrewd decisions with what to pull from the catalogue, the care and attention given to each Blu-ray release, and their emphasis on HD exclusives - namely, their very own U-Control feature, which started out as nothing more than a gimmick but is now evolving into something very, very cool.
'The Rundown,' 'Frost/Nixon,' 'Do the Right Thing,' 'King Kong,' 'Children of Men' - these were all great movies that were only heightened by their Blu-ray releases, which featured exemplary Audio and Video and wonderful extras. (And 'King Kong' had both versions of the movie - the theatrical and the miniseries length 'extended cut.' It was definitely a cut above the HD DVD release.)
They also did right with their release of Spike Lee's 'Inside Man.' When an initial pressing was sent out to reviewers, and some of those discs were found to have audio problems, Universal issued an immediate re-pressing, and even sent a second copy out to reviewers, even though not all discs were affected. This was a really classy move, and showed Universal's commitment to the format, unlike Magnolia's bungling of the 'Let the Right One In' disc. Stay classy, Universal home video.
There's not a lot wrong with Universal's 2009 slate so far. We only wish every studio would revisit their films with this degree of intensity, and while U-Control still has some kinks to work out (like the noticeable lag between interactive features on the 'Children of Men' Blu-ray), confidence is growing that this isn't just some ploy, but can actually turn into something really great and informative.
In short: keep up the good work, Universal. And also: we'd really love 'Jaws,' 'The Frighteners,' 'Psycho,' Rear Window,' 'Vertigo,' and 'Slither' Blu-rays in time for Halloween.
First: some grievances.
Chief among them is the "auto play" feature that, as soon as you put your disc into your player (or your PS3, for that matter), immediately starts the movie. Now, sometimes this is okay - there are moments when I just want to watch the movie; but often, it thrusts you into the movie prematurely. Maybe you're still rounding up your snacks, refilling that beverage, deciding on the proper audio and subtitle options etc. Or maybe, just maybe, you popped the disc in to check out the special features detailed in the review from your widely loved High-Def Digest. (Yes, I know the pop up option is there, but sometimes it's nice to emanate from a central hub.)
Secondly, the fact is that sometimes the default sound setting for the disc isn't the high def Dolby Digital HD 5.1 but some lossy 5.1 mix. Sometimes you don’t notice it until a little while in, and then you're mad that you've been listening to a crappy mix when you could have audio gold. (This is a minor complaint compared to how often they would just leave an HD audio track off the disc, only to have to fix it later as with 'Superman Returns.' Oh, and we're still waiting for a corrected 'Speed Racer' disc.)
One last gripe, and this one is more severe - Warner Bros. needs to stop releasing Blu-ray discs that are just marginally improved versions of the previously released DVD special editions. We've seen this with recent releases of 'Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves' and 'True Romance,' and I'm sure there will be more to come. More than just being a letdown and a rip-off, it does much to obscure what Warner Bros. did RIGHT this year, like their exemplary 'Amadeus' and 'Woodstock' discs and the much-appreciated '2010.'
Warner Brothers has a similarly hard-to-define track record with their new releases. Things like 'Appaloosa' and 'Rock N Rolla' looked and sounded like a million bucks, while 'Inkheart' and 'Pride and Glory' sported decidedly mediocre AV.
There should be mad props given, however, for their commitment to quality animated product, mostly from their WB Premiere wing. The 'Wonder Woman' disc and the pair of 'Watchmen' animated titles were really outstanding, and yet another example of how animation fully comes alive through the magic of high definition. With 'Green Lantern' and 'Superman/Batman' animated films in the pipeline for the rest of the year, things are looking up.
Plus, October will finally see the release of 'Trick 'R Treat,' a wonderful little horror film that some of us (including myself) have seen, and absolutely love. This is a future Halloween classic, and finally the world at large will see it - in HD!
If Warner Bros. chooses to fix the aforementioned issues (and have some consistency in the quality of their new releases and catalogue titles), then they really could be one of the great providers of top notch Blu-ray discs. From what I've seen of the forthcoming 'Watchmen' Blu-ray, that release alone could bump Warner Brothers grade up a whole letter. Instead, I'm forced to grade them right now, where they're merely middling.
Wow. Really? Less than a dozen releases so far this year. One of them, the Oscar-winning ''The Reader,' got high marks from us on audio and video, but not much else. By now we've all heard about the dire financial straights the Weinstein Company is in right now, which partially explains the reason why you can get Canadian Blu-ray releases of some of their films (the underrated monster mash 'Outlander,' the Mickey Rourke crime drama 'Killshot,' and the odious comedy 'Fanboys'), but you'd think they'd want to rope viewers (and buyers) in with their excellent Blu-ray product.
But no. Keeping in mind that the company is sitting on the conjoined version of 'Grindhouse' (at least we know Robert Rodriguez is working on this one, thanks to a recent Twitter post) as well as the infamous but rarely screened 'Kill Bill: The Whole Bloody Affair' in addition to the titles above, it just doesn't make sense for them to continue to let this market go untapped. Two years ago, in our end-of-the-year survey, we gave them an F. Because of 'The Reader' and 'Vicky Cristina Barcelona'(loved it) we'll go ahead and bump that up to a D-, with the hope that we'll get a kick-ass version of 'Inglourious Basterds' by the end of the year.
And there you have it. The year so far. Now go ahead, lets hear what you think. We've given you a lot to chew on, and we know you have a ton to add to the conversation.